Thursday, August 30, 2007

Top Bar Hive Beginnings

Yesterday, my partner and I went to the local Menard's to begin pricing materials for the construction of a 48'' top bar hive. We'll be using Phil Chandler's basic design (I love the addition of following boards), along with adaptations my partner has added. We really don't know when we'll start this project though as more important family concerns will just naturally take precedence. I will include full photos of the construction process.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Finally, Someone Put this into Words (Warning: No Bee Content)

In preparation for my impending (and still tentative) ethnographic sabbatical, I've been returning to some books on field research, one of which is a highly engaging work by Hammersley and Atkinson, Ethnography Principles and Practices. I've been waiting for years to put into words what Hammersley and Atkinson state in one short sentence:

"Here, naturalism takes over a common, but erroneous, view that only false beliefs can be explained sociologically, and in this case the outcome is thoroughgoing relativism. " (pg 13)

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Some Random Thoughts in Ethnographic Mode

It's been a little over a month since I began this exploration in beekeeping as both a novice beekeeper and an ethnographer. I've primarily focused on the actual mechanics of apiculture and developing a sense of the different philosophies and approaches within this world. At this point I've been somewhat limited, primarily depending on books and internet information, including involvement in the biobees forum and the organic beekeeping list. I have also corresponded with a number of beekeepers through email. I am much less overwhelmed but still have many questions.

So far, I've only been in contact and interaction with beekeepers through the internet which leads me to ask: how important is this media to the "socialization" of future beekeepers? I know that I live in a place where the closest beekeeping club is twenty miles away in another state and there seems to be no beekeepers in my immediate vicinity since I never observe honey bees in my own yard. How common is it for new beekeepers to learn the "craft" through internet sources without one-on-one mentoring? Has this changed beekeeping and, if so, how? How important was a mentoring relationship in the past? Or were clubs and apiculture books the primary transmitters?

I've read accounts about beekeeping clubs being primarily the domain of older men, yet many of the resources available on the web are provided by younger people both men and women. Is this pattern stereotypical or is there some generalizability to it? If it is a general pattern, how might it be explained?

I'll be interested in finding out how beekeepers are adapting both cognitively and "apiculturally" to the "threat of CCD". Is the sustainable beekeeping movement attracting more interest than just a few short years ago? How are commercial beekeepers coping with this "threat"? Is it changing viewpoints on husbandry or are they simply searching for another "silver bullet"?

I'm very interested in the way beekeepers think and talk about their bees. I've observed some beekeepers anthropomorphizing bee behavior. How does this activity vary with the type of beekeeping done? Do hobbyists talk of the bees differently than let's say a commercial apiculturalist?

Ethnographically speaking, I have questions about how to approach this blog. Should I see this as the place to record my own field notes albeit in a very unique and challenging way? Placing my field notes online like this has both advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that it allows me immediate feedback on my insights as I do this ethnography. Other beekeepers, sociologists and anthropologists can become collaborators in my work, pointing out problems in what I've written and offering useful suggestions on the direction I might go. This never really happens in regular field research. No one but the ethnographer ever sees his/her field notes. Others simply read monographs based on those notes. The chief disadvantage, as I see it, is confidentiality. Many observations I make might need to be kept from the public for ethical reasons. Also, I can see field notes becoming quite boring to many readers as they will often appear to be narratives without a real point.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Parable of "Tusky"

About 17 years ago my oldest son and I acquired an ornate box turtle who we named "Tusky". It was a generally healthy specimen with some "crusty eye" problems which the former owner assured us were pretty endemic to the species when kept in captivity. As usual, I went into an "obsessive" research frenzy, reading all I could about the husbandry of this species.

As I began to research, I started to become a bit dismayed since every book and pamphlet I read seemed to tell me that this species of box turtle did not do very well in captivity. One author, for example, discussed the difficulties of getting them through their hibernation period. The species had a tendency to dehydrate when hibenated in a dry, woodchipped lined box in his basement. Instead of questioning the hibernation techniques he used, he blamed the "physical character" of the turtle itself. Afterall, he'd had success hiberating other species of turtles and tortoises with this method.

I'm not one to give up, even when the experts with years of experience are telling me otherwise. So, instead of reading more "turtle" books, I went back to some geology and meteorology books to discover just what the habitat of this box turtle was like in the "wild". First, I found that its habitat rarely stayed below freezing the whole winter. There were always periods of thawing and mild weather in its range. Secondly, during these thaws, the water around the hibernating turtle would melt, thus allowing the species to absorb moisture during certain periods. No, they weren't waterlogged but the turtle did find themselves occasionally in a muddy, winter environment.

With this in mind, I took a different approach to hibernating Tusky. First, we kept him in a cool room upstairs with us, so he never had to experience the freezing basement temperatures of a Minnesota winter. Secondly, we actually bathed him periodically in lukewarm water during those winter months watching him drink a surprising large amount of liquid. Seventeen years later, the "clear eyed Tusky" is an active, healthy ornate box turtle.

As I read, Chandler's The Barefoot Beekeeper, this story kept coming to mind because, to a great extent, it illustrates a point Chandler is constantly making about bees: "Let the bees tell you what they need." My approach to caring for Tusky involved finding out what he needed by examining his "natural" environment, instead, of forcing him to live according to my requirements and then wondering what went wrong when problems occurred. When I start beekeeping in the spring, I will be following this approach as well. Yes, I will seriously examine the recommendations of all the books I read on apiculture but, in the end, I must carefully listen to the bees and, I might add, their particular environment as well.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

And the Winner Is...

After some research (which included an assessment of my finances and other resources)I've decided to set up top bar hives next spring. Phil Chandler's book,The Barefoot Beekeeper, convinced me that it is possible to start out with such a hive and with a little more information gathered from the good people on his top bar hive forum I'm on my way. After my partner's art show opening next week, she and I will begin building two top bar hives. I already have my eye on an unused flower pot that will make an excellent nuc as well.

On the sabbatical front, the first draft of my proposal has received good reviews from some trusted colleagues. I even have one offer to help out.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Game Plan Revisited

One of the reasons I created this blog was to brainstorm on how I might begin beekeeping in a way consistent with a sustainable lifestyle. As I research and dialogue with other beekeepers on the internet and in my real life, I have to be willing to change my direction or plans. A good plan is always flexible, adapted to new knowledge about your environment and yourself. For this reason, I am thinking about changing my earlier "game plan".

Gerry at "Global Swarming" suggested a day or so ago that I consider starting out with a Top Bar Hive. I had been reluctant to do this since I had assumed that TBHs were a difficult way to begin beekeeping . But I considered what Gerry told me and about her experiences and am seriously reconsidering the direction I'm going.

I read Phil Chandler's The Barefoot Beekeeper last night and it makes a strong argument for beginning with TBHs for someone in my situation. Firstly, I can't lift alot of weight anymore (Doctor's orders) and that would not be as necessary with a top bar hive. Secondly, a beekeeper using a top bar hive interferes in the life of the colony much less and allows the bees much more leeway to create comb to their own specification and needs. I see this as a key to sustainability. I believe that the bees know best. Lastly, I am fortunate to have a life partner who has also worked as a carpenter who can easily make a hive from Chandler's plans, so my initial costs will be much less. One problem with TBHs, though, is that I really will have no support locally.

So where do I go from here?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Begin those Purchases

I've been looking at my finances and it's hit me that I can't just go out and purchase all that I need for my bees next spring in one fell swoop. I'll need to buy a few things little by little. The starter kit will have to wait until December, I imagine, but those other pieces of equipment I plan to get will have to be ordered paycheck to paycheck. So this Friday, I plan to order an 8 frame triangular bee escape, an 8 frame shim and possibly a 5 frame nuc. Yes, it does seem like pretty non-essential equipment but I would eventually purchase these things anyway, so why not when I have a bit of money.

Given some of the problems, Jordan at Hive-Mind has had with plastic frames, I'm rethinking my initial thoughts about using them.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Natural, Organic or Sustainable?

I always tell my students (and my family, I guess) that the meaning of a word is in the differences it draws between similarly related concepts.( The word "river" is meaningless if it applied to all bodies of water.) With that in mind I've been thinking about these words: natural, organic, and sustainable. What do they mean? How do they differ? How are they all related to beekeeping?

I tend to steer away from the word "natural" in most contexts since it has connotations that I think are just false. When people speak of an object being "natural", it is often used in opposition to "human-made". A "natural" object is something human beings weren't involved in creating; the object was created by "nature". The danger here is that it implies that human beings are outside of "nature", that the creations of people, like "culture", "technology" and "social structures", are the result of forces unrelated to the "nature" of being human. While many of the creations of human beings are detrimental to the community of life as a whole, they are still part of "nature", since they are the result of "natural" human qualities.

I like the words "organic" and "sustainable" better, though I think they refer to different types of phenomena. In reference to beekeeping, "sustainable" refers to your goal: to keep healthy bees that live in balance within the whole community of life. "Organic" refers to the means: to maintain the bees using only the those methods that do not contradict the laws governing the community of life (e.g. 'natural' selection is one such law). The dilemma is, have we produced so much destruction in this community that we've made some types of "non-organic" intervention necessary in order to sustain bees in the long-term? Or does this latter approach, with all its inherent hubris, just compound the problem even more?

Monday, August 6, 2007

Forewarning the Beekeepers

If I get my sabbatical approved and use "Canaries..." as my principle conduit of information, I will be writing here about issues that have very little to do with beekeeping. One of the first of these topics will be the examination of ethnographies and ethnographic methods, using these as possible models for my own research reporting. I've done participant observation before while a graduate student at Loyola but I have never produced a whole monograph using such an approach. At this point my plan is to first read Loic Wacquant's Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. Wacquant is a French sociologist who did a participant observation study of boxing while in Chicago. So those of you who expect a total beekeeping blog, be warned and bear with me. And don't be afraid to comment anyway.

Sunday, August 5, 2007


I guess my last post was not taken in the spirit it was intended. It was meant in jest but, as can often happen on the internet, meaning can be misinterpreted without emoticons. :) Well, anyway, I'm sorry for hurting anyone's feelings. I really enjoy your blog.

"Rate Your Students" Rates "Canaries..."

I'd like to thank the people at Rate Your Students for mentioning this blog. Their criticism of the blog is well taken as it does lack "anything approaching wit or style." After 25 years of teaching, I've substituted "sight gags" and "silly voices" for anything approaching written satire, depending much more on Buster Keaton for my pedagogical inspiration than Jonathan Swift. Well crafted sarcasm and humorous social commentary have only gotten me in trouble with administrators and students alike. I am just so out of practice.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Edited a bit

If you've already read the sabbatical proposal, you might like to read it again. I've changed a few errors and modified the timeline a bit.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Sabbatical Proposal

The following is my first draft of a sabbatical proposal I will be submitting in October. Any comments would be greatly appreciated.

1. Synopsis

I teach the interdisciplinary course called Global Issues and every semester I am faced with the same problem: How do I engage students to consider important macro-structural global issues without losing them? An understanding of the problems and benefits surrounding economic and environmental globalization are a must for any informed citizen, yet for many students, these issues are too abstract and distant from them. Their eyes glaze over with each discussion of IMF policy, or the impact of neo-conservative ideology. I do well enough on my evaluations so I could ignore this problem and coast to retirement, but I have this gut feeling, not found in any of the "positivist" assessment tools used to evaluate the course, that my students are just not getting it. Developmentally, my students are very concrete thinkers, so I am left with the problem of getting them to somehow ponder very abstract concepts and processes.

One approach to my dilemma is to get my students to cultivate what we sociologists call "the sociological imagination": the ability to perceive that one's inner and day-to-day life is very much connected to the larger macro-structures we live within; the concrete mundane problems that we can easily grasp are very much related to those larger global issues and policies which we see as distant. From this pedagogical approach, students would start by focusing on an engaging, concrete activity and slowly broaden this focus during the semester, learning how this activity is impacted by a complex web of larger national and global structures that seem so distant to them at first.

After doing some initial reading last summer on the complex issue of “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD) amongst honey bees (Apis Mellifera), I think that a Global Issues course that centers on honey bees as the proverbial “canaries in a coal mine” would help students understand and engage in the global issues that impact their own lives as well. The problems (e.g. CCD, organic vs. conventional husbandry) that beekeepers and their bees face are not simply biological issues, but are influenced by macro structural forces as well.

The effective construction of any such course will demand a retooling on my part. A course with this focus will demand knowledge outside my disciplinary expertise. Besides a hands-on understanding of day-to-day apiculture I will need to become more familiar with global economic and political policy, ecological issues, agribusiness practices, and the cultures and philosophies in the beekeeping world.

In sum, then, I request a sabbatical leave for spring semester 2009 in order to pursue the following objectives:

1. To understand how the day-to-day lives of honey bees and beekeepers are impacted by the larger macro-forces produced by globalization.

2. To distill the above information into concepts and activities that would effectively engage students in understanding global issues.

3. To produce an ethnography of the beekeeping world including those more “esoteric” movements like “biodynamic beekeeping” and “apitherapy”.

2. Activities Description

The following is a tentative timeline of the activities I propose to do during this sabbatical. The spring semester was chosen since it coincides with the beginning of beekeeping season in Minnesota. During this process a daily blog, accessible to all interested, will be kept on my progress and ideas.

a. January

1. Library research with a focus on bee biology and apiculture
2. Begin interviews with apiculturalists of all type. It will include interviews with large and small-scale intensive honey producers, apiarists who practice “organic” or “sustainable” beekeeping, and backyard beekeepers who have one of two hives.
3. Attend the American Beekeeping Federation annual meeting.

b. February

1. Library research and interviewing with a focus on the philosophical “esoteric” side of beekeeping. This includes examining the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, Gunther Hauk, and other members of the “biodynamic” movement. Also, time will be spent studying the ideas of Charles Mraz and other proponents of “apitherapy”. This also might include attendance at an American Apitherapy meeting and a visit to the apiary founded by Mraz in Burlington, Vermont.

c. March

1. Library research on global agriculture policy and practices.
2. Take a short course on apiculture at the University of Minnesota extension from Dr. Marla Spivak, breeder of the “Minnesota Hygenic” bee.
3. Prepare two hives: one using conventional Langtroth boxes and frames, the second using a Kenyan Top Bar hive.
4. Continue interviews.

d. April and May
1. Begin construction of a Global Issues syllabus using materials collected thus far. Syllabus will include readings and activities in and out of class.
2. Participant observation conducted at local apiaries of all different sizes and philosophies. Observations will go beyond simply husbandry concerns to attitudes towards bees and global concerns
3. Add bees to the two hives set up last month.
4. Library research with a focus on global environmental issues that may impact bees.

e. May to Summer

1. Begin the writing and continued research for the ethnography.
2. Summer management of bees.

3. Contribution Description

a. Professional Development – Sociology has a long tradition of ethnographic studies describing the subcultures of occupations. Back in the 1920s, Robert Park analyzed the social world of news reporters. In the 1950s, Howard Becker examined the lebenswelt of Chicago jazz musicians. More recently, French sociologist Loic Wacquant did a participant observation study as an apprentice boxer. These studies looked underneath the manifest, official descriptions of these occupations found in organizational flow charts or career services materials to a complex world of meanings and rituals. This ethnographic examination of the world of beekeeping is my first attempt to add to this body of materials.
b. Academic Program – I think that the activities of this proposed sabbatical, brought into the classroom environment, will enhance our students understanding of global issues. If other faculty find this approach engaging and/or successful, it might inspire others to approach other courses in this manner.
c. Sharing Results with Other Faculty- Besides doing a post-sabbatical presentation on some relevant issue growing out of my research, I will be keeping a daily blog which will be accessible to faculty, students, and administration during and after the sabbatical. This blog (“Canaries in a Coal Mine”) will document my sabbatical’s day-to-day activities and discoveries.

4. Assessment Description

Four types of evidence will be used in assessing this sabbatical project.

a. Scholarly Publications- I will produce some body of work that will be submitted either in article or book form. I can picture the research producing a number of possible publications in sociology, pedagogy, environmental studies, and apiculture.
b. Presentation at the Midwest Sociology Convention.
c. I will use the comments left on my blog to assess the accuracy and clarity of what I am discovering. I will also share the assessment of my work to my blog readers as well.
d. I will produce a new syllabus for my Global Issues course that uses honeybees as a concrete focus for examining the problems and benefits globalization.